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David Karp
on Deborah Luster’s One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana
A black and white photograph of a young, light-skinned man sitting facing the camera with his shirt-sleeves rolled up to his shoulders.
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Deborah Luster (born Bend, Oregon, 1951)
E.C.P.P.F. 1 (James Willis, Transylvania, Louisiana) [from One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana], 1999
silver emulsion on aluminum
The Jack Shear Collection of Photography at the Tang Teaching Museum

David Karp
Professor of Sociology and Director of the Project on Restorative Justice
Skidmore College

Two pictures, dated 1998 and 1999. Two men incarcerated at the East Carroll Parish Prison Farm in northeast Louisiana. One man is Zack K. Oakes (Date of Birth: 9/20/73). The other is James Willis (Date of Birth: 7/27/77). That’s what we know. Who are these men? What is their story? Why were they in prison? Where are they now? Prisons are humanity made invisible. These photos make them visible, but not known.

Deborah Luster took these and many other portraits for her project One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana (1998–2002). Her motivation is connected to the murder of her mother: “I have come to understand that, while it was the fear and anger generated by my mother’s murder that in great measure ignited this work, it is the loss and hope I feel—that we each feel, one and all—that has fueled it.”(1) Making sense of tragedy. Confronting loss. Finding hope. Seeking humanity.

A murder victim’s daughter was compelled to photograph prisoners. She was looking through her lens to see something about them and to reveal that for others. What can be seen? Luster suggests, “These photographs belong to the eyes of the free world viewer—citizen, voter, gallery goer, broker of social policy.”(2) As a sociologist, I see their stories reflected in cold facts.

East Carroll Parish Prison Farm was a minimum-security prison for men. It is now closed. It housed just two hundred men, most for less than five-year terms.(3) When Luster took her photographs, Louisiana ranked number one in imprisoning its citizens.(4) Note the geography of the top five: Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Alabama. Compare that with the states incarcerating the least: Minnesota, Maine, North Dakota, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. There is something special about the American South. It is the front-runner in crime and in punishment.

Sociologists measure incarceration by comparing the number of prisoners to the number of citizens. In 1999, 776 of Louisiana’s citizens were incarcerated for every 100,000 people living in the state. Minnesota’s incarceration rate was 125 per 100,000 Minnesotans.(5) Not much has changed. In 2016, Louisiana was still number one at 777. Minnesota’s rate rose to 196, and Maine, with 132, replaced it for the lowest rank.(6) Would these men have been imprisoned in Minnesota or Maine? Maybe not, or, at least, not as likely.

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Deborah Luster (born Bend, Oregon, 1951)
E.C.P.P.F. 40 (Zack K. Oakes, Transylvania, Louisiana) [from One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana], 1998
silver emulsion on aluminum
The Jack Shear Collection of Photography at the Tang Teaching Museum

Zack K. Oakes was twenty-six years old in this photo. James Willis was twenty-two. These men were at the peak age for crime, but most crimes don’t get you to prison, or even jail. What did they do to land in prison? The most robust statistical fact in criminology is called the “age-crime curve.”(7) Criminality rises as children grow into adolescence and then subsides as they mature into adulthood. Generation after generation, we know that criminality is most likely between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four.

But there is a gap between peak criminality and peak incarceration: prisoners are most commonly in their thirties.(8) To be sent to prison usually involves multiple convictions for increasingly serious crimes. This takes time. Most young people will age out of their criminality before they accumulate such a record. What happened to these men to be incarcerated so young?

These are photographs of men. That is so expected, we barely notice. Luster also took photos at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women, which houses over a thousand women. But the story of crime and punishment is masculine. The national incarceration rate for males is 848 per 100,000 males in the population, but only 64 per 100,000 females.(9) In 2016, the United States held 1,353,850 men in prison, but only 105,683 women.

The government does not collect data on LGBTQ+ incarceration. But we know a bit about prison hypermasculinity.(10) Deprived of many standard (though still limiting) markers of American manhood—having a job, providing for a family, having a bank account, wearing a tie, having sex with women—incarcerated men shrink their perceptions of manhood to the ugliest few—physical aggressiveness, homophobia, competition for status even when all rank at the bottom of society. When they have sex with other men, whether for need of affection, relief of sexual tension, or a will to power, they will swear by their heterosexuality. What would these men have said about sexuality and manhood? What would have been safe for them to say?

Although these men appear to be white, Luster tells us that 70 percent of East Carroll’s inmates were black (though only 32 percent of the Louisiana population was).(11) This is no surprise. In 2016, the national incarceration rate for black men was 2,417 per 100,000 black men. The rate for white men was 401 per 100,000 white men.(12) Over-incarceration of people of color is universal nationally. There is nothing special about Louisiana. It is true for Blue states. It is true for Red states.

If we could ask these men questions about their lives in prison, what would they say? Deborah Luster photographed people whose humanity was hidden. Is it possible to see their humanity? To do so, we must know their stories, which are yet to be told. They have life histories—probably of hardship and victimization. There is also the accounting of their crimes and the harm they caused to others. Who was harmed? What is their story? What could these men have done (perhaps instead of serving time) to truly take responsibility and make amends?

The restorative justice movement focuses on identifying and repairing harm rather than assigning blame and punishment. Rather than seeing crime as a violation of law, it views crime as a violation of relationships. Offenders and victims are linked and, often, their pathways toward recovery and responsibility are through dialogues of mutual understanding and the fulfillment of obligations to make things right. Luster called her project One Big Self. Offender and victim, inextricably linked. Two people, one big self.

Cite this page

Karp, David. “David Karp on Deborah Luster’s One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana.” Tang Teaching Museum collections website. First published in Accelerate: Access & Inclusion at The Tang Teaching Museum 3 (2019).
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